7 March 2003


An official historian with access to 1940s wartime files, Anthony Glees of Brunel University, says that Hill, who died last month at the age of 91, was an "agent of influence" for Stalin's Russia in the 1940s. Glees claims that Hill, the foremost British historian of the 17th century and Master of Balliol College, Oxford, during the 1960s and 1970s, was a Soviet agent when he worked for the Foreign Office on its Russia desk during the war. Inter alia, he recommended that White (anti-Bolshevik) Russian emigres teaching at British universities should be fired as a gesture of goodwill to Stalin; he was also a friend and contact of the Soviet spy Peter Smollett, who worked at the Ministry of Information (click here for news item in The Times on Glees's allegations, here for Martin Kettle's obituary of Hill in the Guardian and here for Donald Pennington's obituary in the Independent).

That Hill pushed a pro-Soviet line is undeniable. At the time — and for some time afterwards — he was an admirer of the Soviet Union, which he had visited for 10 months in 1935, and a member of the Communist Party. (The Soviet Union was also, lest we forget, a wartime ally of Britain from 1941.) But was Hill a secret CP member, as Glees contends? Rather unlikely. Glees's evidence for his assertion is that Hill had not admitted his CP membership when applying for a job with military intelligence in 1940 (he joined the FO three years later). But Hill appears to have made no attempt before this to conceal his CP membership – indeed, he was already a minor star in the CP’s intellectual firmament because of his essay "The English Revolution 1640", published in 1940 in a book of the same title (edited by Hill) by Lawrence and Wishart, the CP's publishing house. And he certainly did not try to hide his views or his party membership in later life. His book Lenin and the Russian Revolution, first published in 1947 and reprinted many times, was accurately described by A L Rowse, who commissioned it, as “a work of stone-walling Stalinist orthodoxy”; and Hill himself described his writings of the late 1940s and early 1950s as “more or less hack party stuff”. (The nadir was a gushing obituary of Stalin, a “very great and penetrating thinker”.) Hill also played a public role in the controversies inside the CP that followed the Hungarian revolution of 1956, though by then he was a critic of CP orthodoxy (he left the following year). For the rest of his life, Hill was an unashamed independent Marxist and democratic socialist: in retirement in the 1980s, he was a regular reviewer for Tribune. His historical work will live on as the testament of an extraordinary radical intellectual.

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